John de Saint, a retired software engineer, recently purchased property near Bishop, California, in a rugged valley east of the Sierra Nevada. The area is at risk of wildfires, sweltering daytime heat and high winds – as well as heavy snowfall in the winter.
But Mr. duSaint is not worried. He plans to live in a dome.
The 29-foot-tall structure will be clad in aluminum panels that reflect heat and are also fireproof. Since the roof area of a dome is less than that of a rectangular house, it is easier to insulate against heat or cold. It can withstand strong winds and heavy snow.
“The dome itself is basically impermeable,” said Mr. Du San.
As the weather gets more severe, geodesic domes and other resilient home designs are garnering new interest from climate-conscious homebuyers, and the architects and builders who cater to them.
The trend could begin to unravel the inertia behind America’s struggle to adapt to climate change: Technologies exist to protect homes from harsh weather—but these innovations have been slow to creep into mainstream home construction, leaving most Americans increasingly vulnerable to climate shocks, experts say. .
Bring out the storm
In the atrium of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, students from the Catholic University of America recently finished reassembling “Weatherbreak,” a geodesic dome built more than 70 years ago and used briefly as a home in the Hollywood Hills. It was avant-garde for the time: nearly a thousand aluminum trusses bolted together into a hemisphere, 25 feet high by 50 feet wide, evoking an oversized metal igloo.
The structure, designed by Jeffrey Lindsay and inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller, has taken on a new significance as the Earth warms.
“We started thinking about how our museum could respond to climate change,” Abeer Saah, the curator who supervised Reconstruction of the dome, He said. “Geodesic domes have emerged as a way that the past can offer a solution to our housing crisis, in a way that hasn’t really gotten enough attention.”
Domes are just one example of the innovation underway. Steel and concrete homes can be more resistant to heat, wildfires, and storms. Even traditional timber frame homes can be built in different ways greatly reduce the odds from severe damage from hurricanes or floods.
But the costs of added flexibility can be about 10 percent higher than with traditional construction. This premium, which often pays for itself through lower repair costs after a disaster, presents a problem: Most homebuyers don’t know enough about construction to demand stricter standards. In turn, builders are reluctant to add flexibility, fearing that consumers won’t be willing to pay more for features they don’t understand.
One way to close this gap is to tighten the building codes put in place at the state and local levels. But most places Don’t use the latest codeif they have any mandatory building standards at all.
Some architects and designers are responding themselves to growing concerns about disaster.
On a prominent plot of land in the Wareham River, near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Dana Levy watches his new fort of a house rise. The structure will be built with insulated concrete forms, or ICFs, which create walls that can withstand high winds and flying debris, as well as maintain stable temperatures in the event of a power outage—which is unlikely to happen, thanks to solar panels, backup batteries, and an emergency generator. The roof, windows and doors will be hurricane proof.
The whole point, according to Mr. Levy, a 60-year-old retiree who has worked in renewable energy, is to make sure he and his wife don’t have to leave the next time a big storm hits.
“There will be a lot of people pouring into the streets looking for little government resources,” Mr. Levy said. His goal is to weather the storm, “and actually call my neighbors to roll.”
Mr. Levy’s new home was designed by Ilya Azarov, a New York-based architect who specializes in flexible designs, with projects in Hawaii, Florida, and the Bahamas. Mr. Azarov said that using this type of concrete structure adds 10 to 12 percent to the cost of the house. To offset this extra cost, some of his clients, including Mr. Levy, choose to make their new home smaller than planned—sacrificing an extra bedroom, for example, for a greater chance of surviving a disaster.
When wildfire risks are great, some architects turn to steel. In Boulder, Colorado, Rene del Gaudio Design a house which uses a steel structure and siding for what it calls a flame retardant sheath. The roofs are made of ironwood, which is a fire-resistant wood. Under the roofs around the house is a weed screen topped with crushed rock, to prevent the growth of plants that could feed the fire. A 2,500-gallon tank can supply water to the hoses in the event of a severe fire approaching.
These features increased construction costs by up to 10 percent, according to Ms. Del Gaudio. She said that premium could be cut in half by using cheaper materials, such as stucco, which would provide a similar degree of protection.
Mrs. Del Gaudio had reason to use the best materials. She designed the house for her father.
But perhaps no type of resilient home design inspires dedication quite like geodesic domes. In 2005, Hurricane Rita devastated Pecan Island, a small community in southwest Louisiana, destroying most of the area’s few hundred homes.
Joel Viazzi’s 2,300-square-foot dome wasn’t one of them. He only lost a few shingles.
People came to my house and apologized to me and said: We made fun of you because of the way your house looks. We should never have done that. said Mr. Veese, a retired oil worker.
Dr. Max Peggy lost his home near New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, he built and moved into a dome on the same property, which has weathered every storm since, including Hurricane Ida.
Two features give domes their ability to withstand winds. First, domes are made up of many small triangles, which can carry more load than other shapes. Second, the shape of the dome’s channels wraps around it, depriving those winds of a flat surface to exert force upon.
“He doesn’t blink in the wind,” said Dr. Biggie, a racehorse veterinarian. “It sways a little bit — more than I’d like. But I think that’s part of its strength.”
‘Looking for something different’
Mr. Veazey and Dr. Bégué got their homes from Natural Spaces Domes, a Minnesota company that has seen a spike in demand over the past two years, according to Dennis Odin Johnson, who owns the company with his wife, Tessa Hill. He said he expects to sell 30 or 40 domes this year, up from 20 last year, and has had to double the number of his staff.
A typical dome is about 10 to 20 percent less expensive to build than a standard wood-frame house, Johnson said, with total construction costs in the range of $350,000 to $450,000 in rural areas, and about 50 percent higher in and around cities.
Most of the clients aren’t particularly wealthy, Johnson said, but they do have two things in common: an awareness of climate threats, and the riskiness of being adventurous.
“They want something that will last,” he said. “But they are looking for something different.”
One of Mr. Johnson’s new clients is Kaitlin Horowitz, a 34-year-old accounting consultant who is building a dome in Como, Colorado. She said she was attracted by the dome’s ability to heat and cool the interior more efficiently than other structures, and the fact that it required fewer materials than traditional houses.
“I love the twist,” said Ms. Horowitz, “but I love the sustainability.”